Women in Nagaland politics: A question of ‘mind-set’

‘Mind-set’, ‘change’, ‘society’, ‘hope’- these or some variation of these words are often repeated in Nagaland when discussions about the role of women in politics (or the lack of it) are held. With the stage set for the state legislative assembly elections scheduled for February 27, those words have begun resurfacing.

Come February 27, a total of 195 candidates will be hoping to secure a place in the 60-seat assembly. Amongst the 195 candidates, there are just five women who will be hoping that this time a woman will be voted into the state legislative assembly.

Home to 16 recognized tribes, the role of women in Nagaland’s political history can be difficult to understand viewing it from an outsider’s perspective. As in several tribal and indigenous communities in the Northeast, women in Naga society have a lot of freedom and are not systematically suppressed by men (or at least it’s not evident at first glance). However, freedom does not necessarily translate into rights, especially property rights where a father cannot pass on his ancestral land to a daughter. That is just how it has been for ages.

Another aspect of life in Nagaland where women seem to have little to say is in politics.

Ever since the first legislative assembly was formed in February 1964, no woman has ever been elected to the House. The only time a woman was elected to office was when Rano M Shaiza became a Lok Sabha MP back in 1977. Since the state’s creation in 1963, just 30 women have contested the state elections and never once managed to win.

This time around though, there is ‘hope’ among some.

Making up just a little over two percent of candidates going to poll, five from a pool of 195 hardly seems like a number to get excited about. And yet, there is an air of excitement, especially among women (unsurprisingly) that this time may be different from earlier years.

Rosemary Dzivuchu, advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association, said, “we are following the five women candidates with great interest and hope to see women legislators this time”.

Dzivuchu, a vocal women’s rights activist, said that women contesting elections will make a difference, “more so because of being educated and sensitive to issues”.

Tasugntela Longkumer, the assistant manager of the Dimapur-based English language-daily, Nagaland Page, is also optimistic.

“Will Nagaland ever have a woman MLA? Definitely and hopefully by these elections,” she said when asked about the chances of seeing a woman inside the legislative assembly building in Kohima as an elected member.

Hope and optimism aside, why has success in electoral politics remained so elusive for women in Nagaland?

Awan Konyak

Awan Konyak is marking her debut in electoral politics following in the footsteps of her late father Nyiewang Konyak.

Dr Hewasa Lorin, vice-principal of Tetso College in Dimapur, said that people’s ‘mind-set’ needs to change if women are to ever think of being voted into power.

“Ours is a society where elders are always respected and so during village council meetings the voice of the elders overpower those of the younger ones,” she said during a conversation following an academic event at the college recently, adding that such is the norm that men’s voices end up suppressing those of the women’s. Like many others, Lorin also said that times are changing and is hopeful for the future.

Dzivuchu, who is hopeful too, said that women in Nagaland are “not treated at par” with men, clear from the fact that they are “not visible in decision-making bodies or tribe councils or, village councils”.

This, she said, is one of the main reasons no woman has ever won an assembly election and that they are “not given party tickets by political parties or discouraged” from contesting.

This election’s tally of five women candidates is an improvement from the last elections when only two women contested. They are: the BJP’s Rakhila; independent candidate, Rekha Rose Dukru; Awan Konyak of the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party and; the National People’s Party candidates Wedie-ü Kronu and Dr K Mangyangpula Chang.

Their candidacy has been widely reported in the state media since the nominations were cleared. But it still begs the question why there has never been a woman in the legislative assembly.

Rita Krocha, a Kohima-based writer, recently wrote that while a woman in Nagaland “may be allowed to pursue education, follow her dreams, to even marry the man of her choice, we all know with absolute certainty that when it comes to politics (or even the apex tribal organisations for that matter), a woman’s place is never, ever given, or considered with seriousness”.

She wrote that patriarchy is “deeply rooted” in Naga society and the low participation of women in politics is a “sheer reflection of this sad reality”.

Krocha’s take on deep-seated patriarchy within Naga society isn’t something a lot of men tend to agree with. The general discourse being that women in Nagaland are much more ‘free’ than their counterparts in ‘mainland’ India.

One incumbent MLA while appreciating the fact there are more women contesting this time around, said what is an oft-repeated line: that women in Nagaland are not suppressed.

“They run the home but the old thinking was that running the village council is a man’s job. Our forefathers did that but we are not following them blindly,” he said at his campaign office run out of his house.

“Our Naga women are very capable. We have deep-rooted customs and we feel for them,” he said, adding that women in Nagaland are “catching up” when it came to electoral politics. But here too, he is quick to add that they are not discriminated against and that men by nature are proud.

“Mind-set,” he said, “takes time to change”.

Wedie-ü Kronu

Wedie-ü Kronu made a name for herself as an activist and wants to see more women in enter politics.

While there are those who say that women are given same standing as men, not everyone agrees.

“The reality is that it’s a strong patriarchy deep inside,” said Dzivuchu, adding that “times and mind-set (there’s that word again) need to change with the rest of the world in terms of gender equity”.

One (male) journalist referenced last year’s violence that was allegedly triggered after the government’s decision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women in urban local bodies as an example of the patriarchal ‘mind-set’.

While activists such as Dzivuchu are blunt and direct in their criticism of patriarchy within society, the women in question take a more measured approach.

Awan Konyak, who is marking her début in electoral politics following in the footsteps of her late father Nyiewang Konyak, said that ‘change’ requires time.

“Nagaland is a state that is deeply defined by its traditional culture and roots and traditionally the role of village leader or elder was mostly held by men because in olden days it meant being responsible for the safety and security of the village and the people,” said the 38-year old.

Now though, she said, security comes “through economic stability, development, and accessibility to services”.

Konyak said that women in Nagaland do not have anything to prove to themselves and that “it’s now for the people to realise this paradigm shift and to embrace gender equality even in politics”.

For a functional democracy she said, women politicians “can and must be a part of the system to ensure that it is a healthy democracy where all sectors and genders of society have a voice”.

Wedie-ü Kronu, an activist associated with the Nagaland Public Rights Awareness and Action Forum contesting the Dimapur-III seat, chooses not want to blame anyone for the low participation of women in politics and is careful with her words.

“Women have been looked as housewives who should take care of the husband and children. Even those ‘lucky ones’ who are in government services are expected to do the same,” she said over the phone while taking out time from hectic campaigning.

Kronu said that not encouraging women to venture outside family matters has become a tradition and a way of life for women who never complained about it.

“These days the mind-set of our women has changed,” she said, using that keyword.

But does she blame men or society at large for the current state of affairs?

“No, no, no. It’s not about blaming society or tradition. Maybe somewhere, somehow we have not encouraged women to come out,” she quickly added.

While she is optimistic about her chances, Kronu said that even if it isn’t her who wins perhaps one of the other four will and that will be a start. She exercised caution here too though, and said that “it’s easier said than done”.

The five women candidates are, in a manner of speaking, creating a new path for themselves and the role of women in politics in Nagaland. However, they aren’t relying on their gender alone to win the elections. The greater common emphasis seems to be, for these women, on bringing change – change in gender equity or otherwise.


This article first appeared in The Citizen.

PoV: Hornbill, Nagaland

 

Held for ten days beginning on December 1 that marks Nagaland’s Statehood Day, the annual Hornbill Festival is an extravaganza that showcases the culture of the 16 tribes that call the state home. While the festival has put the state on the global map, attracting tourists from near and far, the realities of the state marred with crumbling infrastructure and rampant corruption has left many local residents giving the festival a miss. (Photo locations: Kisama, Kohima and Dimapur.)

 

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A view of Kohima town.

 

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Monpa Yak Dance performers from Arunachal Pradesh alongside the Zeliang of Nagaland perform in sync at the Hornbill Festival.

 

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Young Naga men watch cultural performances at the amphitheatre in Kisama Heritage Village, the site of the annual extravaganza.

 

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A man from the Konyak tribe stands guard outside the representational Morung- dormitories traditionally meant for bachelors- at Kisama.

 

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Konyak Naga warriors.

 

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A traditional rice milling apparatus of the Kuki tribe made from wood.

 

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Women of the Pochury Naga tribe from Meluri Village weaving clothes at the Craftscape section of the Hornbill Festival. The cotton processing system is called Akükhie Ngunü Küto.

 

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A photo exhibition providing a glimpse of the contents of ‘The Konyaks- Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’, a book by Phejin Konyak and Peter Bos chronicling the last batch of Konyak Headhunters and women from the community who would tattoo their bodies in the days of yore. A practice that was abandoned after the introduction of Christianity.

 

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The Kohima War Cemetery honours the memory of over 2000 men who laid their lives in the Battle of Kohima, fending off Japanese forces during the Second World War. The Battle of Kohima is often termed as Stalingrad of the East and lasted from 4 April to 22 June 1944 and saw heavy casualties from both sides as Naga tribesmen fought alongside British-Indian forces. Had the battle fallen favourably for the Japanese forces, the global map as we know it, may have looked very different. This, along with the Battle of Imphal fought in Manipur, has been recognised as ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ by the British National Army Museum.

 

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Some graves at the Cemetery are unmarked and unnamed but not forgotten. Most died when they were barely into their twenties.

 

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A woman selling hens and roosters beside a street in Nagaland’s capital Kohima. As with most tribal and indigenous societies across India’s Northeast, it is the women who keep the local economy running through their hard work.

 

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While the Hornbill Festival dazzles tourists with colourful cultural displays, signs that not all is glorious with the state of affairs of Nagaland are also visible. Student bodies have been at loggerheads with the state government since last year over delays in disbursement of students’ scholarships. The state government has cited lack of funds as causing the delay and has begun rolling out stipends in instalments.

 

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A poster on a monolith in Kohima reads (written in the lingua franca- Nagamese): Directorate of Higher Education, Students are suffering. Where is our stipend? – Eastern Nagaland College Students’ Union.

 

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Road conditions in the state leave much to be desired and the annual layering work done before Hornbill Festival hasn’t impressed citizens. Many young people call it ‘applying lipstick on the road’.

 

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Apart from the condition of the road, traffic is a perennial problem in Kohima and traffic jams can sometimes last for hours and stretch for more than three kilometres.

 

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Rains had left large stretches of the Dimapur-Kohima road muddy leading to many taxi drivers hiking up rates for passengers or simply refusing to go at all. While the road was reportedly ‘repaired’ just days before the festival began, construction work meant that it was bound to be prone to slush.

 

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Along the Dimapur-Kohima highway are several basic restaurants that serve some of the best food one can find. The menus of some places even list ‘rural meat’- code for game meat that can include anything from wild boar to venison.

 

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As in other states of the Northeast, the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants (whether real or perceived) is seen as a major threat to indigenous communities in Nagaland too. Referred to as Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs), calls for deportation of the alleged illegal immigrants have been gaining momentum of late. However, proving the nationality of those perceived to be illegals is easier said than done and is made more complex by the large population of Bengali-speaking Muslims who work in Nagaland’s commercial hub of Dimapur where citizens from outside the state do not require inner line permits.

 

Death of a leader and the future of separatism in India’s Northeast 

The death of rebel Naga leader SS Khaplang earlier this month marked the end of an era and the recent announcement of his new successor could mark the beginning of a new era for not just the Naga separatist movement but also insurgency in the Northeast of the country too.

Shangnyu Shangwang Khaplang, often erroneously written as Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, was born in Myanmar near the international border and belongs to the Hemi Naga tribe. 

 ‘Baba’ Khaplang (Image Sourced From Internet)

Having broken away from Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, he formed his own faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland in 1989 to continue the fight for Naga sovereignty but was often engaged in territorial battles with his former comrades who continue to exercise much authority in most parts of the state of Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. The NSCN-K mostly has a grip over Nagaland’s eastern districts of Mon and Tuensang and the three districts of eastern Arunachal Pradesh- Tirap, Changlang and Longding- all of which are close to its base in Myanmar. 

Much has already been written about the man who led the rebel group as its chairman for decades. His funeral aside, memorial marches and services have been held in many places including Shangnyu village in Mon district where his family lineage can reportedly be traced back to the ahng (chief) of Shangnu.

His death on June 9 brought several mixed reactions from people across the board. Many in Nagaland called it an end of an era including the chief minister, Dr Shurhozelie Liezietsu, who said that he was “grieved” to learn about Khaplang’s death and called it “tragic considering the fact that the protracted Naga political problem is on the verge of being resolved, and the need for all different Naga political groups to come together to air our views and aspirations to the Government of India in one voice is absolutely imperative”.

Liezietsu’s condolence however was met with criticism from some sections of Indian media which called his reaction “shocking”, failing to fully comprehend the complexity of the Naga movement and the mixed emotions that it evokes in people. 

Multiple “taxation” by the many rebel groups is a constant point of contention among the people in Nagaland and has led to protests by civil society bodies. 

Regardless of how people feel about the issue, Khaplang did command respect. As one Dimapur-based journalist said, Khaplang was “someone who steadfastly stood for the ‘national’ cause, unlike his counterparts, who are more or less in the system now”. 

A day after his death, Union minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said that after Khaplang’s death the “NSCN-K leadership will face a lot of difficulties”. 

Rijiju had also made an appeal to the outfit’s Indian cadre to “return to the mainstream”. 

While not much has been said officially by the Indian government since, the statement has significance considering the fact that Khaplang had pulled his faction out of the ceasefire agreement in March 2015. 

While Khaplang intensified his assault on Indian security forces and formed the United National Liberation Front of West East South Asia (UNLFWESA), a conglomeration of various rebel groups from the region including the Paresh Baruah-led anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), his former friends were busy engaging with the Indian government. 

The Centre had been in talks with the Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) to find a solution to the decades-long issue and had signed a “framework agreement” in August 2015. While it was welcomed by many people, the details of the agreement are not yet in the public domain. 

Veteran journalist and author, Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who had interviewed Khaplang at Taga in Myanmar in 2011 and has written extensively on the region’s insurgency, feels that the peace process is unlikely to be impacted by “Baba’s” death. 

Bhattacharyya says that the peace process “has been dragging for a long time for different reasons, mainly the unwillingness of the Centre to resolve these issues soon because it is always focussed on short-term goals”. 

The secrecy surrounding the framework agreement certainly does seem to give credence to such thought but many will be waiting to see what direction the outfit takes since the appointment of its new “chairman”. 

Immediately following Khaplang’s death, two names came up as possible successor. Unconfirmed reports had said that Khumchok Pangmi was appointed caretaker chairman but all speculations were laid to rest yesterday when an official statement from the outfit confirmed that Khango Konyak was to take over the reins of the NSCN-k. 

An official statement from the group said that Konyak, belonging to the eponymous tribe from Nagaland’s Mon district, was born on 17 July 1943 at Yangkhao village and was christened Bechung Khango who “at the age of 20 responded to the call of the nation and joined the Naga national struggle in the year 1963 and after successful completion of basic military training became enrolled in the ‘Naga Army’”. 

Konyak is a hardened man who served as the vice-chairman of the NSCN-K since May 2011. He has been part of the movement for over five decades and was one of the early members who had made the arduous trek to China where the group received arms training during the 70s and 80s. 

After his elevation to the top post, Konyak said that he will work “solely in the interest of the Naga people and to defend and uphold the sovereign rights, identity, dignity and honour of our people”. 

It remains uncertain as to what path the outfit will take or indeed what future awaits the several insurgency movements in the region. 

Bhattacharyya says that the challenges that the new leadership will have to work on are to “keep the flock together and continuing with the judicious balance that Khaplang had managed to carve out after years of bloody conflict”. 

While the NSCN’s own leadership issue has been solved, the UNLFWESA is currently without a head as it was Khaplang who led the conglomerate. 

Ultimately the separatist movements will have to be resolved through dialogue and so far the only outfit making any concrete progress on that front is the Muivah-led NSCN. 

Following Swu’s death in June 2016, Muivah has kept a low profile. There are also no indications that he is looking to extend an olive branch to his former friends in the other NSCN factions. 

The government too should be looking to chalk out a plan that works in the long term for the best interest of the largest number of people.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen

Hornbill Festival: Beyond the exotica

The Hornbill Festival of Nagaland is promoted as an annual cultural extravaganza to promote Naga culture that tourists seem to love. But in a changing time and era, there are those who are doing their bit to save Naga culture without putting up a show. 

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Reverend Dr Phuveyi Dozo stands behind a bulletproof glass on the lectern and offers prayers for the success of the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland. Soon after he is done, Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village invokes the old gods to bless the annual cultural extravaganza.

The Hornbill Festival began 15 years ago to bring together 16 of the biggest tribes of the state in a cultural extravaganza that has been billed as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ in the ‘Land of Festivals’ by the state government. The idea was to bring some semblance of peace in the state affected by insurgency and usher economic benefits through the promotion of the state’s largely unspoilt natural landscape. The state happens to be the birthplace of the world’s longest continuing separatist movement since when in August 14, 1947, the Naga National Council declared independence from the British, a day before India’s. More than six decades since then, the Naga ‘freedom’ movement continues to this day and recently made a major leap forward when one of the oldest separatist groups, a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thungelang Muivah, struck by a ‘peace deal’ with the Indian government.

While the details of the deal remain shrouded in mystery, what is evidently clear is that the Nagas, and specifically the state of Nagaland and its people, stand at a crossroad today between the new and the old; between treading on a continuously changing new path of life and preserving an older way of living. At the Hornbill Festival, it appears, the two aren’t exclusive of each other.

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Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village prays to the old gods.

 

Christianity arrived in Nagaland over 125 years ago with Baptist missionaries who wanted to offer the headhunting tribal people deliverance. Along the way, several of the old tribal animistic practices such as severing the head of an enemy and getting their bodies and faces tattooed have been lost, discarded and/or discouraged entirely.

India’s latest Census figure puts over 87 percent of the state’s population as following one of the several denominations of Christianity. While only a handful of people, mostly those in villages with very little connectivity, refuse to convert to Christianity, there is a growing sense of wanting to reclaim the past amongst some people in the state.

A few metres away from the main cultural ground at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, some 10km from the state capital Kohima, are tents where men and women are hard at work sculpting statues and weaving traditional shawls and wraparounds. It is part of ‘Craftscape’ exhibition organised the NGO Tribal Weave.

A brochure for the exhibition reads ‘Meet Naga Artisans at Work- In celebration of the timeless traditions that value the humanity of the handmade’.

The artisans keep themselves occupied with wood, metal, cane, cotton and even salt. A signboard explains how the Zeliangs of Peletkie village extract mineral salt, called Lekie Cai,  from the ‘sanctified’ mineral salt spring through a process involving ‘customary adherence to rituals and offerings’.

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Extracting the ‘Lekie Cai’ is hard work.

 

I catch hold of Tribal Weave founder Sentila Yanger while she does the rounds of the exhibition explaining to people the details of what’s being done. She goes into considerable details about how in the old days the only way to extract dye was to pluck leaves and branches from certain plants before treating them through an arduous process involving boiling, drying and re-boiling to get the right hue.

She says that she is trying to revive that which has been lost over the years with the advent of time. For instance, cotton was once extensively grown to weave fabric before mill spun cloth and yarn were introduced. Making the entire process easier and less time-consuming, the women in villages and towns alike took to the new commercially available threads like fish to water.

Yanger, who founded the NGO in 1989, says that a lot of the old practices have been discarded with the advent of time. And not all of them are confined to heirloom-making or salt processing alone.

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Hoping to salvage knowledge of the old ways, Sentila Yanger takes notes.

 

I bring up the topic of the Angh blessing the event just after the Christian pastor did on the opening day of the Hornbill Festival and tell her I found the juxtaposition interesting, especially since I am also a tribal from Arunachal Pradesh where our society is going through a similar process of transition.

“As an onlooker, I feel sad that we have lost these things”, she says, her voice conveying a lot more than what is said.

Nearby, music emanates from the ‘Artists’ Corner’. Amidst paintings and sculptures created by Naga artists, smack at the centre of the makeshift exhibition stall sits a collection of customised motorbikes. A few steps away, Phejin Konyak engages with visitors who are curious about her yet-to-be-released book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’.

“Who defines what being civilised means?” she rhetorically asks Steve, an American tourist visiting the festival for the first time. Steve begins to steer the conversation towards the Zomia theory when I interject and ask him if he is talking about James C. Scott’s ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ which appears to excite him. “How did you like the book?” he asks. I confess I haven’t read it but that I am familiar with the theory of how and why people would choose to live in difficult mountainous terrain away from the comfort that the lowlands have to offer.

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Phejin’s book is an attempt to document what she says has already been lost.

 

Phejin’s book, which is set to release in March, is an attempt to explore and explain why men and women of her tribe- the Konyaks of Mon district- got their bodies and faces tattooed and how that practice has also been discarded now.

She explains that the tattoos symbolised rites of passage and accomplishments (including the practice of collecting severed heads of enemies).

The promotional pamphlet for her book says that the “traditional hand-tapped craft of tattooing is vanishing along with the culture of old ways” and that the book is an attempt to capture this practice “before all is lost forever”. However, she isn’t exactly looking to revive the old practices.

“My father always says that we should change with the changing times.”

In the stall next to her, there is someone trying to revive the old tattooing practice- or at least the old tattooing patterns.

Moranngam Khaling, an ethnic Uipo Naga from the neighbouring state of Manipur has been leaving his indelible mark on people as a tattoo artist for the past 11 years. Having worked in New Delhi and Guwahati, he moved to Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub to promote Naga-patterned tattoos amongst a generation of youngsters who seem more inclined to have dragons or Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies.

Mo Naga, the name he goes by, says that western tattoo designs are completely foreign to Naga culture and that he is attempting to bring back the tattoo patterns of yore. Things are not easy though and he explains that his move to Dimapur has not been very successful because youngsters are not enthused to get Naga pattern tattoos.

“In two days, seven people have got tattoos made and none of them were Nagas”, he says with visible discontentment.

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Mo Naga leaves his mark.

 

But he is more than happy to give Naga-pattern tattoos to non-Nagas and doesn’t see it as diminishing the symbolic value of why men and women got tattooed in the old days.

“We have no problems selling people from outside our Naga shawls, do we?” he says.

Just then, the roar of the revving from one of the customised bikes fills the exhibit stall when Phejin walks towards us with an expression of curiosity and annoyance and signals with her thumb to ask what’s going on. Mo’s words almost disappear over the sound of the loud engine and I lean in to hear what he has to say.

“I don’t know what this has to do with Naga culture?”